You need the softest touch to open the door to Ken’s apartment. If you don’t hold the key just right it jams in the lock—and then you’re screwed. This afternoon Tokyo is one colossal steam bath. Ken’s hands are greased over with sweat, and the plastic keychain, a souvenir from Thailand, keeps slipping in his fingers. After a wearied day teaching English conversation, he just wants inside. He starts to panic, like a refugee halted at a border crossing. But this little story delivers a happy ending: at last, he gets the key exactly right. He rotates it ever so gently, feels the tumblers click into place and the lock spring open. Ken should call his landlord about getting the lock fixed, but the thought of explaining it all in Japanese is more than he can handle.
He slips off his black dress shoes in the entryway. A large cockroach buzzes past his nose; in Japan they have wings, kamikaze roaches. But Ken is beyond caring. He disregards the insect. From outside his balcony window, he can hear the cicadas chant their horny mating call: meen meen meen. Carry on, ye wingèd vermin of the East.
He clicks on the air conditioner and flops down at his little kitchen table. Leaning forward so his sweaty shirt won’t stick to the chair, he glances at the morning’s Japan Times, wilted across the tabletop. A photo of Ronald Reagan holds down the front page. Behind the wrinkly president stand Senator Daniel Inouye and a dozen other aging Japanese-Americans. Reagan is smiling as if he were actually pleased to sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the official apology for the wartime internment camps.
Ken presses the play button on his boombox. It’s the same cassette he listened to at breakfast, the Beach Boys Love You album from 1977. It starts up right where he stopped it this morning, halfway through the loopy song “Solar System,” with Brian Wilson vowing in his shattered voice that he’ll find a wife only when they discover life on Mars. Ken loves the Beach Boys. His first (and to date, only) political activism came five years ago when he was still in high school: a letter to the editor denouncing Secretary of Agriculture James Watt’s banning of the Beach Boys from the Washington, D.C. Mall. Ken has thought about sending another letter to protest Reagan’s AIDS policy, but never gets around to it.
A first cool breeze from the air conditioner scuds across the room. That’s when Ken notices the red light blinking on his answering machine. He pushes the playback button. A woman’s voice marches out—his mother’s, her Japanese accent still rock solid after twenty-five years in Minnesota. She speaks to him in English, as she does whenever it’s something really important. She mistrusts Ken’s ability to catch things in Japanese.
“Ken-chan, this is Mom. I’m afraid I have sad news for you. Please call me when you get home.”
Ken’s mom Keiko singlehandedly paid his tuition at Carleton College. She sold off her restaurants last year, right after he graduated, but even in retirement she sticks to an iron routine. Every morning she’s awake at dawn, doing tai chi in the family room, and every night she heads to bed promptly at 10:30 after watching the news on WCCO. It’s past midnight in St. Paul, but Ken somehow knows she’s awake, waiting for him to call. He dials her number. The line falls dead for a second, then the familiar Minnesota ringing kicks in, louder and less graceful than Japanese telephone tones. His mother answers before the second ring.
“Ken-chan, I’m afraid I have sad news for you,” she says. “Grandpa Dutoit passed away tonight. He and Grandma were out taking a walk and he had a heart attack. They brought him to the hospital and I guess they revived him for a few minutes. But he had another cardiac arrest and they couldn’t bring him back. I’m so sorry.”
This news is both expected and unexpected. Grandpa is—was—eighty-seven, and this was his third heart attack. But still: shit.
“My god. How’s Grandma doing?”
“Your dad and Uncle Rick are with her. I think she’s in a state of shock. It all happened so SUD-den-ly.” Suddenly is one of those English words Keiko never quite mastered—she has to wrestle down each syllable. But she also seems to go out of her way to use it, as if to prove the adverb doesn’t intimidate her.
“I’d better call Dad and see what’s up.”
“I’m sorry it had to be such bad news, Ken. Remember, you can call me anytime. You can call collect.” She’s trying, Ken knows. But his mother keeps her emotions compacted inside her like the steel core of a superball. Probably it’s the price she pays for living in a foreign land. Ken wonders if he’ll end up like that if he stays in Japan. But then again: Grandpa Dutoit was an immigrant too, and he was the most openhearted man Ken has ever met, as soft as a marshmallow floating in hot cocoa.
“Goodnight, Ken-chan. I love you. Oyasumi nasai.“
“Love you too, Ma. Oyasumi.“
Ken knows she won’t hang up the phone until after he does—her good Japanese manners.
A million thoughts ricochet through Ken’s brain. Careening noisily like silver pachinko balls, they crowd out all emotion. Can he make it back home for the funeral? The service in New Montreal will probably happen on Saturday. He pictures the heroic impression he’d make, the filial grandson who races in from across the globe to offer last respects. Then he scolds himself for being narcissistic: this isn’t about Ken, it’s about Grandpa.
Ken dials his father’s home number. There’s no answer; he and his second wife Susan are probably still at Grandma’s. Should Ken try calling there? But that’s a little scary: what will he say if Grandma herself answers? He decides instead to try Uncle Rick’s house. Rick lives just outside Little Montreal, ten minutes from Grandpa and Grandma’s place. He’s the one they call when their car won’t start or their faucet leaks—even though a visit from Rick means getting splattered with sullen unhappiness. Ken’s father takes after Grandpa Dutoit, as mellow as ripe cantaloupe, but Uncle Rick inherited their mother’s personality, Prussian stringency to the bone.
Ken looks up Rick’s phone number in his address book. He dials, and Aunt Laura answers. She’s a Seventh Day Adventist—she became born again a few months after marrying Rick. Laura hands Ken religious pamphlets every time she sees him, even slips them into his birthday and Christmas cards. Ken knows she loves him dearly, but if she ever learns that Ken is gay, she’ll start speaking in tongues. Over the telephone, she repeats the details of Grandpa’s death in her homely Minnesota accent: the after-dinner stroll, the momentary revival in the emergency room, the fatal second attack. She’s just returned home, Laura says, but Rick and George are still at Grandma’s house. He should try calling there. And she tells Ken that God loves him and that He is looking after Grandpa now.
Maybe yes, maybe no. As a young man, Grandpa Dutoit fled Quebec to escape the priests. They ruled over his hometown like tyrants, hurling thunderbolts from the pulpit: “Ann Marie Poirier, I saw you holding hands with Pierre Belanger last Saturday night…Albert Babin, I heard you take the Lord’s name in vain.” Grandpa never joined a church after emigrating to Minnesota. Once, when he returned home to the Gaspé Peninsula for a visit, a priest challenged him on the street, telling Grandpa he would burn in hell if he didn’t attend mass regularly.
“Then I guess I’ll be seeing you in hell, Father,” Grandpa retorted.
Ken has heard that story a hundred times. It seems completely out of character with the soft, sweet American version of Grandpa Dutoit that Ken knows. Back in Quebec, Grandpa must have been a pretty sharp tack. Can crossing a border transform your personality? It hasn’t worked for Ken—of that much, he’s sure. Even after traversing the Pacific Ocean Ken is still the same screwed-up 23-year-old with no concrete plans beyond teaching English for a few years and then, maybe, applying to journalism schools. He has no idea what he wants from life. He hasn’t even collected any good stories to tell when he grows old.
Ken takes a breath and dials Grandma’s number. He knows it by heart; it was the first phone number he memorized as a child and it hasn’t changed since. Grandma answers. Her voice sounds completely normal: gruff, brusque, employing what she calls her farmhouse manners.
“Hello?” she barks.
“Ken! Is that you?” An overseas phone call still carries an enchanted aura for her, even at a time like this. “How are you?” she asks. The question startles Ken.
“I’m pretty sad. I heard the news. How are you?”
He tells Grandma he will fly back to Minnesota for the funeral. Ken hadn’t actually decided to go back before this moment. Once he utters these words, though, he’s committed himself. Maybe he is compensating for his failure to feel as sad as he should. Ken sometimes worries he has a slab of frozen seafood in place of a heart.
Grandma says that Ken’s father and Susan just left, but that Rick is still there. Ken asks to speak with him.
Uncle Rick comes on the line. He speaks in a dour rasp—his normal voice. He tells Ken he’ll be staying with Grandma tonight, and Ken thanks him.
“Well, I figured somebody ought to do it,” Rick replies. “So I thought I’d take a shot.”
Ken tells Uncle Rick he will come home for the funeral. He hopes this will provoke some sort of reaction in his uncle, but of course it doesn’t.
“Okay. Thanks for calling Grandma, Ken,” Rick shuts down the conversation. A stranger would mistake his tone for sarcasm, but Ken knows that it’s as close to warmth as Rick can manage.
It occurs to him for the first time that Uncle Rick has lost his father. Just as Ken will someday lose his father. Even the Beach Boy brothers—Brian, Carl, and Dennis—must have wept the day that Murry Wilson died.
After hanging up the phone Ken feels a powerful need to do something, anything. He walks to the back room of his apartment, finds nothing, and walks again to the front room. He switches the cassette tape to Pet Sounds, which somehow seems more appropriate to the occasion. Then he remembers the strawberries he bought earlier in the week. He opens his small refrigerator and pulls them out, only to find them coated in white mold, a musty smell wafting up from the plastic container. He drops them into the garbage can.
He finally thinks of something to do. He picks up the phone and calls his boss at the language school. In his amazin’ high-octane English, Ozawa practically orders Ken to go home for the funeral. Ozawa has never seemed much of a family man; Ken was surprised when he first learned his boss was married with two children, because Ken has always known Ozawa as a voracious party animal. It’s as if Ozawa’s metabolism is hooked up directly to the surging Japanese economy and every hundred-point rise in the Nikkei index releases another shot of testosterone into his bloodstream. When he takes the teachers from the school out drinking, Ozawa’s the one who orders saké with gold flakes floating in it; he’s the one who hits on waitresses—the younger, the better. He keeps trying to set Ken up with them, too, and can’t figure out why his young American employee shows no interest. Ozawa named his English conversation school the Four Prophet Academy and concocted a bogus mythology behind it to conceal the cynical pun. Ozawa is so crass, he’s actually kind of charming.
But news of a death in Minnesota brings out something unexpected in the man. “You must take care of your family now,” he tells Ken. “Don’t worry about your classes.” Ozawa pauses to mold his thoughts into an aphorism: “Sometimes, English conversation can be so insignificant.”
Don’t I know it. The next call Ken makes is to the airline. The woman tells him there’s an 8:40 Northwest flight this evening to San Francisco and that he can change planes there for Minneapolis. Ken already has the return ticket he was planning to use at Christmas, so he only needs to change his reservation.
He at first requests a window seat. He changes his mind, though, and asks for a spot on the aisle instead. Like much in Ken’s recent life, it’s a slapdash decision. But as soon as he makes it, his future undergoes a subtle recalibration. A little story is beginning to take shape, and before too long Ken will step into the middle of it.
He telephones St. Paul again and gives his mother the flight info. She’ll meet him at the airport, she says. He pictures her sitting in the arrival gate, filling in a crossword puzzle as she waits. It’s a point of pride for her to outdo her native-speaker friends on English-language crosswords. She’s a formidable Scrabble player, too. Apparently, back before Ken was born Grandma Dutoit used to think herself a pretty fair hand at Scrabble. But three or four years after Keiko arrived from Japan as a bride, she started to beat Grandma Dutoit. The two women stopped playing against each other.
Ken’s father George could hardly be more different. The man bit off more than he could chew when he married Keiko. Susan, his second wife, is more his speed—about 17 mph, cautious brake lights flashing on every few seconds. Susan works as a college counselor at the suburban high school where George teaches math. In their timorous, stay-at-home lives, they chitchat about gardening and new recipes. They seem happy.
Ken wonders: what in the world did George and Keiko talk about when they were married? He remembers mostly the bickering from the final years before their divorce. It’s hard for him to imagine the two falling in love. What made his mother choose the shy, clumsy G.I. from Minnesota? Was she just looking for a way out from her hometown in northern Japan?
Ken sometimes wonders if he isn’t somehow following in his father’s footsteps, coming to Japan a single man. So far, Ken has had no luck, not even—in these fearful days of AIDS—a one-night stand. Well, there was that drunken, fumbling thing with the woman who picked him up on the train one night, but who knew what that was about? Most Saturday nights, Ken heads for Shinjuku 2-chome. Ken never hung out at gay bars in the Twin Cities, but here in Tokyo he enjoys them. He doesn’t drink much, but likes to stand back and watch the dancing, the casual laughter, the karaoke. Ken isn’t especially attracted to Japanese men. He prefers the Midwest farm-boy type—and you can find him in Shinjuku, too. You can find anything in Shinjuku. But when Ken does find him, the guy is always looking for something else. Usually, the guy is seeking some variation on Yukio Mishima: jet black hair, almond eyes, steely torso. He doesn’t want Ken’s half-Japanese, half-Minnesotan ass. And so Ken returns home alone at midnight on the last Chūō Line train, crowded together with all the drunken salarymen, listening to the Beach Boys on his yellow Sports Walkman. I wish they all could be Toh-kee-oh boys…
Is this what he came to Japan to find?
Ken starts packing his suitcase. His best suit is at the cleaners, but he has a charcoal gray blazer and black slacks hanging in the closet that will do for the funeral. He’s experimented with growing a moustache these past few months, but in preparation for Minnesota he goes into his little bathroom and shaves it off. He takes a shower and changes into jeans and a Carl and the Passions t-shirt.
He digs up his airline ticket and passport. By a stroke of luck, his visa paperwork is in order. Before he traveled to Thailand last December for a rendezvous with two classmates from Carleton, he visited the immigration office near Tokyo Station to apply for a Japan reentry permit. He had to wait in a line that stretched around the block. When Ken finally got inside the doors, he found the most depressing bureaucratic purgatory you could imagine, sullen bureaucrats bleached out in a harsh fluorescent glow. Most of the people waiting in line were Asians—Korean, Filipino, Thai—and the immigration officers were giving them a hard time, even the families with children. When those bastards saw Ken’s navy blue U.S. passport, they issued his reentry permit without a second glance. God bless America, and be true to your school. A single-use permit was cheaper, but Ken decided to shell out an extra 2,000 yen to get a multiple-use permit, valid three years. It was worth it to avoid returning to that dungeon. As a result, his passport is now in order for when he flies back to Tokyo after the funeral.
He is ready to go. He pushes his suitcase out the apartment door, carrying a backpack and his garbage in one hand. It’s still sticky and hot outside. The door gives him no trouble: the key slides in and turns smoothly in the lock, then pulls right back out again. For some reason, Ken never has trouble with the lock on his way out, only when he returns home. He double-checks the knob; it’s really locked. He climbs down two flights of stairs and drops off his garbage bag in the bin. It’s four days ahead of schedule, and his neighbors will grumble about foreigners breaking the rules for trash collection, but, hey, there’s been a death in the family.
Normally Ken rides his bicycle to the station. But this evening he walks, his suitcase wheels rumbling along the narrow street. At Ogikubo he catches the crowded Chūō Line to Tokyo Station, where he switches to the Yamanote Line. Fifty minutes after leaving his apartment, he arrives at Ueno. He crosses the street to the Keisei station and boards the Skyliner Express for Narita Airport. The train is nearly empty. A few minutes after it pulls away from the station a uniformed conductor comes around to check tickets—the usual routine, nothing worth telling.
Ken gazes out the window blankly. He remembers the day he arrived in Tokyo, almost a year ago. He had visited Japan twice as a kid, but back then he just tagged along behind his mother. This was the first time he had to manage on his own. Ozawa, his new boss and visa guarantor, offered to pick him up at the airport, but Ken wanted to try by himself. He felt so independent that day: with his three years of college Japanese, he was able to find Keisei Narita Airport Station and buy a ticket into the city.
The Skyliner Express winds through densely populated sections of eastern Tokyo. When you look out the tinted window, it’s like you see all of Japan. The train tears through local stations without slowing down, and you glimpse people out on the platforms, waiting for local commuter lines—school kids in uniform, mothers pulling toddlers by the hand, salarymen clutching briefcases. You whip past railroad crossings where cars and bicycles bunch up behind the lowered crossing guard. You cut along the backyards of houses and apartment buildings, and you peep into second-story windows as housewives pull in futons that have been airing out on balconies. You spy a million fragments of humanity through that thick glass pane and are conscious of each for a fraction of a second. Then you enter the blackness of a tunnel and the loudspeaker announces that you will reach the terminal in a few minutes. You start fumbling with your luggage.
At the airline counter, Ken hands over the suitcase and receives his boarding pass. He buys dollars at the currency exchange window, remembering as he does so that his wallet was a Christmas gift from Grandpa Dutoit. It’s the wrong size for Japanese bills: yen notes stick out at the top and get bent out of shape. Ken clears through passport control and the security check. His departure gate is crowded, but he finds a seat.
As he waits he thinks about Grandpa Dutoit. Ken still doesn’t feel as sad as he should—the last few hours have been too hectic for that. Out of a sense of obligation, he tracks down memories from childhood. Grandpa’s jowly Quebecois accent. The way he filled the bathtub with only a few inches of water when Ken slept over—terrified, Ken later realized, that his only grandchild might drown. The way he brought Ken to buy éclairs at the bakery owned by Grandpa’s roly-poly cousin Maddy. She died of diabetes Ken’s freshman year at Carleton, leaving Grandpa as the last of his clan in New Montreal. Over the past decade the fabric of life in that small town has come unraveled. The old neighbors that Ken knew as a child, the ones with queer accents, the ones who trapped rabbits for food and collected rainwater in rusting garden oil drums, have died off. Their little houses have become quaint remodeling projects for white-collar commuters from the Twin Cities. The dingy old stores along Third Street have mostly closed, elbowed out by the gleaming new mall that opened outside town.
In 1988 Japan you can still find little family-run shops. In fact, they’re all over the place. Ken’s Japanese grandparents own a fruit-and-vegetable stand up in Akita. They live on the second floor above the store, the cramped apartment where Keiko and her older sister were raised. They joke that Ken should come stay with them because Akita is famous for its beautiful women. Ken doesn’t ask about the men.
Sitting in the airport gate, it occurs to Ken that Grandpa Dutoit never met his mother’s family. Ojiichan and Obaachan never visited Minnesota, and Grandpa Dutoit never traveled to Japan. It’s a damned shame, too, because Grandpa Dutoit would have loved Japan. In 1971, when Ken’s mother was still married to his father, she opened her first restaurant. It was only the second Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis and quickly became a hit. She opened two more locations. Before the divorce, his American grandparents used to visit her restaurants once a year. It became part of their holiday routine—they always came in early December so his mother could pay back Grandma for hosting Thanksgiving. Uncle Rick and Aunt Laura would come along, and once or twice Grandpa’s cousin Maddy joined them too. The guests sat around a low table on the tatami floor mats in the Japanese-style room upstairs. Keiko would duck back and forth between their table and the kitchen. This was her big event, serving her husband’s parents, and she threw everything into it.
Every year Grandma Dutoit ordered the same dish: chicken. Keiko would ask if she wanted them to leave the teriyaki sauce off, and every year Grandma would say the same thing: no, leave it on. Grandma thought she was being polite that way. The restaurant’s teriyaki was famous: the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers both ran feature articles about it. But when her chicken arrived, Grandma would use a steak knife to scrape the sauce off, bringing that bird back home from the treacherous Orient to its safe Midwest roots. Grandma no doubt meant to be discreet in doing this, but if you’re raised on a Wisconsin pig farm by paranoid German immigrants, you don’t get many advanced lessons in discretion. Keiko would pretend not to notice.
Grandpa Dutoit ordered the same thing every year, too. He wanted fish. He left the choice to Ken’s mother—whatever’s good today, he’d say. He grew up on cod back in Quebec and complained that you couldn’t get decent saltwater fish in Minnesota. Ken’s mother would grill him a sanma, or she’d steam some black cod with ponzu sauce and green onions, or she’d broil a thick filet of salmon and serve it with grated daikon. Whatever it was, Grandpa devoured the dish with grunts of pleasure (always using fork and knife—he never figured out chopsticks). He’d smile with every mouthful and at the end of the meal, he’d declare that Keiko was the only person in Minnesota that knew how to cook a fish.
The annual visits to the restaurants ended when Ken’s parents split up. Grandma was probably relieved. But poor Grandpa: he lost the one good fish he could look forward to each year.
At the Narita Airport gate Ken has to adjust to being around Americans again. The place is crawling with them. Their voices annoy him. Their clothes are ugly. They slouch when they walk and slump when they sit. If anyone asks him where he’s from, he’ll say Canada. Call it his personal tribute to Grandpa Dutoit.
The flight to San Francisco begins boarding. Ken is in no hurry to get on—it will just mean being trapped in an even smaller space with all of these Americans. He stays put until the line dwindles and finally boards with the last stragglers.
Inside the 747 he works his way down the aisle to row 41. There, he finds two older women, both dressed in saris. Maybe they’re from India, he thinks, but then he remembers that this flight originated in Singapore. He decides the women must be sisters. In the three-seat row, one sits in the center, the other on the aisle—in Ken’s seat. When they see him standing in the aisle, the two women immediately both gesture toward the window seat, as if they had been planning for this moment. They unbuckle their seat belts and tuck their feet under them to open a passageway for him.
“Please,” says the woman in the center, offering him the innermost seat. Her sari is a pinkish-purple color of neon intensity; her pepper-black hair is braided into a single long ponytail. Her angular face somehow reminds Ken of Aunt Laura; he hopes she won’t spend the ten-hour flight trying to save his soul.
“No, I’m sorry,” he says, displaying his boarding pass to the women. “I think I have the aisle seat.”
The two women exchange words in a language Ken can’t place. They look back at him, smiling. He understands: they want to keep the two outer seats. Normally Ken would just shut up and accept the window seat—he really would. But today he surprises even himself by insisting on the aisle. He apologizes, of course, and immediately regrets his action. But he says nothing more as the woman occupying his seat stands up and slides past the knees of her companion. She’s wearing a mint-green sari. She looks to be the older sister; she’s maybe sixty. She settles into the window seat, and Ken stands in the aisle a minute longer while the women rearrange the extensive collection of cloth bags they have stuffed under the seats in front of them. The man in the seat behind Ken’s stares at him. He looks to be Korean or Chinese. He has watched Ken uproot the two women and his eyes spit venom. Ken can read his mind: Americans! Ken feels properly shamed.
He finally sits down and slides his small leather backpack under the seat in front of him. He becomes aware of passengers across the aisle, a group of women occupying the four-seat center section of the 747. They are all Americans, women with snow-white hair curled in tight ringlets. They have evidently read somewhere—Reader’s Digest, perhaps—that the Smart Senior Traveler wears a comfy track suit while flying: each is dressed in fuzzy athletic trainingwear. They all talk at once, their heads bobbing up and down like whitecaps on a windy lake. One of the small pleasures of Ken’s life in Japan is the absence of any obligation to eavesdrop in public places—it’s remarkably easy to tune out a foreign language. But here American English rains down on Ken, and the language barrier won’t keep him dry.
The woman directly across the aisle from him speaks loudest. Without wanting to, Ken learns that her name is Tillie. At one point, she calls out to her husband Artie, sitting one row forward, but Artie is asleep with his hearing aid turned off. Smart man. The woman is terribly proud of her new white walking shoes. She purchased them in an open-air Singapore market for only six dollars—after haggling the clerk down from ten. As Ken listens to Tillie recount her shopping exploits, he remembers a Mike Royko newspaper column warning against little old ladies in tennis shoes. The woman sitting next to Tillie is Esther. When Tillie finishes her shopping narrative, Esther launches into a detailed account of gastrointestinal difficulties she has endured since they left Tucson. Reluctant to cede the floor, Tillie immediately begins recounting her own bowel habits. Regular as a clock, even on the road.
In desperation Ken forces his attention to the left. The two sisters in his row are speaking in low, conspiratorial voices. The one in the green sari reaches down beneath the seat in front of her to fetch a floral patterned sack. She slides out a small plastic food container and opens the translucent lid.
An evil odor fills the cabin. Ken recognizes the smell from his Thailand trip: durian. The two ladies dig in, using toothpicks to spear golden chunks of fruit. The one in the pink sari says something in that foreign tongue. It makes her sister laugh. They have been waiting all day for this pleasure.
Across the aisle the American women start raising a stink about the stink. Ken hears a pinging sound: someone has pushed the attendant call button. Ken suspects it was Tillie. The two sisters remain blissfully oblivious as they finish their snack. The older one in the window seat closes the plastic box, burps the air out, and tucks it back away in the cloth bag. A flight attendant appears, already looking haggard though the plane has yet to pull away from the gate. She fetches a large aerosol can and sprays the air around them. The durian fumes are overpowered by an artificial lilac smell, much worse. It makes Ken want to gag. But the Americans across the aisle are satisfied.
“Come back often,” Tillie tells the flight attendant. Esther laughs at Tillie’s wit.
God bless America, Ken thinks. And, God, if you really do exist, please send them around with the headphones soon. Headsets are free on international flights, but if he had to, he’d pay good money for something to block the noise from across the aisle.
He labors to focus his thoughts elsewhere. He tries to remember the track order from the original 1964 album Shut Down, Volume 2, where the song first appeared: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “In the Parkin’ Lot”…
Twenty minutes later the 747 is at last airborne. Tillie and company still chatter away. Ken settles in for the long flight. He should think more about Grandpa Dutoit. He pictures the little two-story in New Montreal with its white aluminum siding and red brick chimney, the house Grandpa bought a few years after he arrived from Canada. His home for a half a century, until just this evening. Ken remembers the upstairs bedroom that used to be his father’s, with its knotty pine walls slick with varnish, the drab watercolor of a clown hanging above the light switch, the alcove with a built-in bed. Ken slept there many times as a boy. He remembers summer evenings when Grandpa Dutoit sat in his undershirt out on the tidy front yard, drinking cans of Hamm’s beer. Grandpa always set out extra lawn chairs, because he knew neighbors would drop by. Ken projects himself into the scene as a third-grader, slapping away at mosquitoes, listening to Grandpa and his buddies talk DFL politics. When Grandma goes inside the house to fetch Ken a cookie, Grandpa sneaks him a sip of beer.
Grandpa Dutoit knew every resident of New Montreal. The highway sign at the edge of town listed a population of 1,712, and Grandpa had befriended each of them. In Tokyo, Ken doesn’t even know his next-door neighbors. He sees their garbage bags in the collection bin every Tuesday morning, and he sometimes can hear them faintly through the walls of the apartment. On the rare occasion he passes them in the hallway, they nod ever so faintly. They don’t even know his name.
The flight attendants begin serving dinner—beef or pasta, they announce on the intercom. Over the lingering aerosol fragrance, Ken can smell the food, but he is sitting on the continental divide of economy class. They begin meal service from the front and back of the section and move toward his row with glacial slowness. It will take fifteen minutes for them to reach Ken, and he’s hungry. In rushing to Narita, he forgot supper. He wishes he’d had the foresight to pack some durian.
When the serving carts finally get to his row the flight attendant explains that they have run out of the pasta. Ken’s two neighbors don’t catch this. The one sitting next to him says in lovely British-colonial English, “Two pasta, please, ma’m.” The flight attendant stares for a second, shrugs her shoulders, and hands the ladies two trays. When the sisters roll back the foil covers, they find chunks of beef, of course. They look perplexed, but don’t complain. Ken pretends not to notice. The women eat their dinner rolls, the salads, and the cookies. They leave their entrées untouched. It’s just as well: Ken’s beef is stringy and dry. He imagines what his mother would say about it. When Keiko flies back to Japan, she insists on taking JAL or ANA, even though they don’t have direct flights to Minneapolis. Meanwhile, across the aisle, Tillie and Esther chuckle about how nice it is to be eating real American food again.
The first movie begins. It’s the latest Sylvester Stallone trash, but Ken watches. His boss Ozawa worships Stallone, and this film hasn’t made it to Japan yet: he’ll want a detailed report. The two sisters on Ken’s left excuse themselves to visit the bathroom and then try to sleep. The one next to Ken shifts repeatedly in her seat, trying to locate the magical position that will bring comfort. She’s barefoot and tucks her feet neatly underneath her. Ken watches more Stallone, then glances back to his left. His neighbor’s arm is propped on the armrest between them, her other hand wrapped around the elbow, the fingers nearly touching Ken. Her nail polish is glossy pink, a color Ken associates with little girls and toy cosmetics. Ken glances at her face and sees the eyeballs twitch beneath closed lids.
The second film begins, a limp comedy starring Robin Williams. Ken can’t bear to watch. He drifts into a halting, dreamless sleep. It must have lasted for hours, though, because when he opens his eyes next the flight attendants are serving breakfast—pancakes, fruit cocktail in a plastic cup, a hard roll that’s a little too hard, and orange juice that turns out to be half-frozen. The women in sari are wide awake and seem to enjoy their breakfast.
The press of the headphones against Ken’s ears is becoming painful. He pulls them off, but this leaves him defenseless against the chatter from across the aisle. Tillie’s shrill voice pierces the drone of the jet engine roar. Her husband’s a doctor, Ken learns, and their daughter has married a doctor. She talks about the time their daughter brought her fiancé home to meet them.
“He and Artie got into the most awful argument. He kept telling Artie that we should have socialized medicine, that everyone should be able to get free medical help,” she snorts. “He wanted to just give it away.”
“I know, I know,” Esther says. “They all start out like that. But they learn, they learn.”
“Yes, they learn, don’t they? They learn. Last year, we went on a cruise to the Bahamas with them. He’s opened his own practice in Houston, and he’s making more money than Artie ever did. We were in the dining room in the ship one night, and Artie reminds him about that argument they had years ago. Well, he listens to Artie, and he just says ‘I changed!'” Tillie chortles in victory.
“He grew up,” Esther says. “They all grow up.”
“Yes, they grow up, don’t they?” Tillie agrees.
Ken pulls the headphones back down over his ears. They still hurt, but he’ll take physical pain over this conversation.
The crew distributes immigration and customs forms. Ken has his first real conversation with his neighbors. He learns that they hail from Singapore. He has guessed correctly: the women are sisters, widows both. And they are new immigrants, coming to America to live with relatives. Their nephew and his wife work as software engineers in San Jose and their small children need minding. From one of her cloth bags, the sister in the center seat fishes out a small photograph album and shows Ken a picture: two small girls in matching Minnie Mouse t-shirts on the steps of a backyard climber.
“We will live in America!” Ken’s neighbor tells him. The sister in the window seat is leaning forward to watch them, and she nods too.
Grandpa Dutoit emigrated from Quebec when he was twenty-three—Ken’s age now. Ken is heading home for his funeral, and by chance he sits next to two sisters making the same gambit that delivered Grandpa to Minnesota sixty years ago. Ken wonders if he should say something meaningful to them, “Welcome to America,” or “I hope you’ll like our country,” or “Don’t worry, Reagan’s second term ends next January.” But what right has Ken to play welcoming host? He chose to flee Uncle Sam—and he ran away to Japan, a country notorious for closing its borders to foreigners. Ken slipped through on one of those obnoxious “blood relative” visa categories, and he doesn’t even have his shit together enough to know if this exile in Tokyo is temporary or permanent. By what right can Ken pontificate to the sisters?
And so, as often happens, Ken finds himself paralyzed by self-doubt. In the end he says nothing to the sisters about their new homeland. Why is it so hard for Ken to commit himself to anything? If he ever writes an autobiography, it will be narrated in third-person so he can stand a little apart from it.
Ken must have been in kindergarten when he first heard the tale of how Grandpa Dutoit came to America. Grandpa repeated the story again and again in the years after, as if to make certain Ken would remember. It began with the arrival in 1925 of Grandpa’s Auntie Corrine in his hometown on the Gaspé Peninsula. Corinne had emigrated with her husband a decade earlier and returned home from Minnesota for a brief visit, bearing flashy gifts and modern ideas—she taught them how to make whipped cream. Corrine talked about the good wages and steady work available at the canning factory in New Montreal. In those days, Grandpa and his brothers had to scramble to survive. They farmed in summer, worked lumber camps in winter, and snatched up whatever odd jobs they could in between. Crop prices were falling, the soil was depleted, and the local sawmills were shutting down. “It was hard times,” Grandpa told Ken, “Hard times.” Grandpa was the eldest of six children, the heir-designate to the farm. But he chose to abandon all that and try his luck in America, at least for a little while. That ‘little while’ stretched into two years, three years—and then he met Grandma, bought the house on Lincoln Street, and that was that. Grandpa’s temporary sojourn became permanent.
“Oh, my mother cried and cried when I left home,” Grandpa told Ken. “Back in Canada, when you said you were going to America they thought you was going straight to hell.”
That summer of 1925 Grandpa boarded the train with Corrine and rode to Montreal. There, they stopped to get his papers at the U.S. consulate, then took another train for Detroit, where they switched to an American railway. That train was crowded and Grandpa and his aunt had to sit several rows apart. Somewhere in the middle of Michigan, a man in uniform came up to Grandpa and asked him something in English. The man stood there, waiting for an answer.
“I was shaking with fear,” Grandpa told Ken. “I didn’t know what that man was saying. I thought he was a policeman. I thought maybe he was going to send me back to Quebec.”
Corrine to the rescue: the man was a train conductor, wanting only to punch Grandpa’s ticket. “Boy, I didn’t know nothing back then,” Grandpa would say, smiling.
The story was a kind of fable and Grandpa always ended it with a proper moral. Of all his brothers and sisters that stayed behind in Canada, he would tell Ken, Grandpa was the only one who ever bought his own house, the only one who ever owned a car. The epic tale of how he migrated to America had a happy ending, he wanted Ken to know.
And now Grandpa Dutoit is dead. He’s dead. That story about the train exists now only as a memory planted in Ken’s head, because Grandpa is dead.
Ken remembers something else: Grandpa Dutoit took the oath of U.S. citizenship the week Ken started kindergarten.
Still two hours from San Francisco. Ken extracts a magazine from his backpack, a glossy Japanese music monthly that includes an article he wrote about the impact of the Beach Boys on contemporary American youth. (None, of course, but his Japanese readers didn’t need to know that). His boss Ozawa is friends with the magazine’s editor and made arrangements for Ken to write the piece. As best he can, Ken deciphers the Japanese translation of his English text. He stumbles across many unfamiliar Chinese characters and wishes he had his dictionaries with him.
His immigrant neighbor, the sister in the purple sari, looks over his shoulder at the magazine.
“You can read this?” she asks him, pointing down at the magazine. “It’s Japanese, yes?” He nods. She rolls her eyes and gives off an exaggerated sigh to convey admiration. “Very impressive,” she says.
Ken becomes aware that Tillie is standing in the aisle to stretch her legs. She looms over his shoulder, but Ken ignores her.
He points to the article and tells his neighbor, “In fact, I wrote this article.”
She turns and says something to her sister. The sister in the window seat nods at Ken and smiles.
“Actually,” he confesses, “I wrote it in English and somebody else translated it into Japanese. But I can read it. Mostly.”
There is a brief lull, and then the sister in the middle seat asks him, “Do you like living in Japan?”
Damn: a trick question. Should he answer honestly, or briefly? “Well, Japan is…” he begins—but he gets stuck there, because he can’t track down any predicate adequate to the grammatical subject he has uttered.
To his right, Tillie can no longer restrain from inserting herself into the conversation. “I’ll tell you about Japan,” she declares. “You can’t trust them. They’re a sneaky people. You’re lucky to be coming home.”
Nine times out of ten Ken would just smile at the awful lady and go back to ignoring her. Today must be the tenth time. His head snaps up.
“Boy, you got that right, Ma’m. Never trust a Japanese. They’ll deceive you by making better cars than you do, by educating their children better and by working harder than you do. They’re so devious, I can walk out of a gay bar in Tokyo and not have to worry about getting beat up in the street. Those Japanese, they’ll even trick you by having good manners and respecting the private conversations of the people around them on an airplane. No, you can’t trust a Japanese, that’s for damn sure.”
It takes a second or two for Tillie to register the tenor of Ken’s remark. She turns away in an all but audible huff. She and Ken obviously aren’t going to be speaking anymore. Thank Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and any other deity in the vicinity who might be responsible. Tillie sits down across the aisle and leans over to mutter something to Esther. Ken feels pretty good about the whole thing. He may even have to tell his mother about it—everything, that is, except for the part about gay bars.
He turns back to the sister on his left, whose face registers the faintest trace of a smile. He resumes answering her question. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I like Japan. I never feel at home in America, but I don’t feel at home in Japan, either. At least in Japan I’m not supposed to feel at home.”
The woman nods. Ken thinks she might actually understand him.
Ken stands to let the two sisters pass into the aisle and visit the bathroom again. When they return, they grapple with their customs declaration. Ken’s neighbor has questions as she fills out the little green card. In the phrase “$5000 in currency or instrument,” what does “instrument” mean? When it asks how many family members are traveling with you, do you include yourself in the number? Do two adult sisters count as belonging to the same family? Ken does his best to answer, but the bureaucratic prose confuses even him.
“Just fill it in the best you can,” he tells her. “They won’t care much one way or the other. It’s not a test.” But then he wonders: maybe it is a kind of test. Do new immigrants from Singapore receive the same halfhearted once-over that Ken gets when he re-enters the States?
The flight crew begins preparations for landing. They announce that all passengers, even those continuing on this flight to Phoenix, must deplane in San Francisco to clear customs. Ken’s neighbors have trouble following the announcement; they’re getting more anxious the closer they get. Ken tells them it doesn’t matter, since they’ll be getting off at San Francisco anyway. The sister in the window seat, the more talkative one, tells Ken that their nephew will meet them at the airport and drive them to their new home.
Finally, the plane lands. Raindrops streak the airplane windows: so much for the warm California sun. As they wait to deplane, the two sisters arrange and rearrange their mountainous cargo of cloth bags. From one of the sacks, the woman in the green sari pulls out a keychain, a small wooden carving of a lion. She gives it to Ken—to remember them by, she says. The lion is the symbol of Singapore, she tells him. She’s practically shaking with excitement to be in America.
The sister in the seat next to Ken looks worried and says nothing.
After clearing customs, Ken still has an hour to wait before the Minneapolis flight. According to every stereotype, San Francisco is the one place on earth where a Japanese-American gay man should feel at home, even if he’s still in the closet. But Ken squirms. He sits on a bench, watching people flow past: Americans. The television screen bolted to the ceiling is tuned to CNN. The news is all about George Bush, Michael Dukakis, Dan Quayle. America. Growing up, Ken always stood out here: a short, skinny kid who was awkward at sports. Who didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until he was ten, because he was afraid of falling. Who never learned to like girls.
Ken always felt like a foreigner in America. Except, that is, when he hung around with Grandpa Dutoit, who didn’t seem to notice what a loser his grandson was. When Ken was with him, Grandpa just assumed that the boy was able to do things, and so, magically, he could. Under Grandpa’s spell, Ken could bait a fishing hook, drive a stick shift, replace the spark plugs on a lawnmower. Speaking in his thick French-Canadian accent, Grandpa would demonstrate once how to do something, and then Ken could do it too. Later, when Ken tried again on his own, the magic had fled. The worm wriggled away, the engine killed.
And now Grandpa Dutoit is dead. It’s starting to hit.
On the Minneapolis flight Ken plunges into a deep jetlag-induced sleep. He awakens as the plane enters its final descent. Outside the window, in the twilight landscape he glimpses the brown Mississippi River, the dull blue IDS Tower, the bulbous white Metrodome. And then—bump, bump—he’s back on Minnesota soil for the first time in a year. He’s moved backward in time, literally: the local time that the flight attendant announces over the intercom is two hours earlier than his departure time in Tokyo.
In the gate area he spots his mother. She’s a foot shorter than anyone else in the crowd. She surprises Ken by running up and hugging him, pressing her folded newspaper into the small of his back.
“I’m so sorry, Ken,” she says.
He holds her sparrow-like body in his arms. In her old wedding pictures Keiko has beautiful long hair, but for as long as Ken can remember she’s worn it in a short, practical cut. It’s even shorter now, and as he hugs her he sees traces of gray. Were those there last year when he left? Oh Caroline no…
The funeral takes place on a cloudy Saturday afternoon at the Catholic church in New Montreal. It apparently took some doing to convince the local priest to bury a non-parishioner, but Uncle Rick made it happen. The turnout is pretty good, considering that most of Grandpa Dutoit’s cronies have, as the obituaries like to say, predeceased him. The biggest wreath of flowers on the altar is the one sent by Ozawa, Ken’s boss in Tokyo. Ken’s mother tells him that Ozawa called from Tokyo to get the delivery information. Ken winces at the thought of crazy Ozawa talking with Keiko. He imagines the exaggerated formal Japanese Ozawa would have used, and his mother’s infallible bullshit detector kicking in immediately. Anyway, the flowers are lovely. Ken’s mother says she’ll give him a bottle of wine to bring back to Ozawa as a return gift. Ken knows she’ll call the florist first to find out exactly how much the wreath cost.
Ken’s father delivers the eulogy. George stands up in the pulpit wearing his one good suit, the charcoal pinstripes he bought for his wedding with Susan. He looks nervous at first, but then seems to lose himself in the words and relax. He talks about Grandpa’s boyhood in Quebec and his five brothers and sisters, about his coming to New Montreal and working forty years at the Green Giant canning plant, about his marriage to Grandma. Laid out so plainly, the simple facts of Grandpa’s life take on a painful beauty, like one of the instrumental interludes from Pet Sounds. His father’s words weave a magic spell for Ken: they bring Grandpa back to life. For the first time since Ken heard the news, tears cloud his eyes. It hits, harder than ever: Grandpa Dutoit is dead. He’s lying in that coffin up there and soon they’re going to bury it below the ground and Ken will never see him again.
Ken’s father reads the closing sentences to the eulogy he has scribbled out on a yellow legal pad.
“My father was neither rich nor famous. He was a kind and loving father and grandfather, a good neighbor, a responsible citizen, a hard worker. I believe he never knowingly hurt another human being in his life. We are better people for having known him.”
Uncle Rick, sitting next to Ken in the front pew, is slumped over and weeping. Aunt Laura pats his back. Susan, his father’s second wife, sits on the other side of Ken. Grandma Dutoit sits next to her. Since the divorce, Keiko is no longer officially family. She sits by herself halfway back in the chapel, the lone Japanese face in this congregation made up of descendants of French, German, and Swedish immigrants. Nobody from Singapore either. The sanctuary is filled with white-haired widows, old ladies in tennis shoes who look and act like Tillie from the airplane. They probably traffic in strange ideas about Japan, too. But they’re also the people who for the past sixty years have given Grandpa Dutoit his hometown.
After the service, everyone drives to the Catholic cemetery outside of town. Ken rides in his mother’s Nissan. He reminds her to turn on her headlights for the funeral procession. Ken recognizes the motorcycle cop who blocks traffic for them: one of his father’s high school classmates. As the procession inches down the two-lane county road, Ken’s mother tells him that when she first came to America, Grandpa Dutoit was the nicest in the family to her. “You’ll make it here just fine, little lady,” he told her. “America can be tough, but you’re tougher.” He encouraged her when she opened her first restaurant, and he cheered her every success. He even called to congratulate her last year, long after she’d divorced Ken’s father, when he read in the newspaper that she’d sold her restaurants. That was the last time they spoke, she says.
Ken sees his mother brush away a tear as she tells him this. Ken’s mother never cries. Even when she divorced his father, Keiko didn’t cry. Ken wishes he had a camera to take a photograph of her right now. He wishes he could catch that teardrop in a little crystal vial and carry it back to Tokyo with him.
After a long silence, Keiko tells Ken she is thinking about coming to visit him in Japan. “I should meet your boss and thank him for taking care of you,” she says. She wants, in other words, to check up on Ozawa. Ken sees a disaster unfolding.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he says, not quite knowing what that means. Anyhow, he’s doomed. That much he knows.
At the graveside, Aunt Laura slips Ken a Seventh Day Adventist pamphlet. Uncle Rick sees her do it and jerks his head back in anger. Things are going back to normal.
Five days have passed since the funeral. Once again, Ken stands outside the door to his Tokyo apartment. It’s still hot and steamy. The Beach Boys praise the warmth of the sun in four part Aeolian harmony, but they never mention humidity. Ken pulls out his new keychain, the one with the Singapore lion, and inserts the key in the lock. He’s careless, though, and the key gets jammed. It’s really wedged in—he can’t turn it in either direction or pull it out. After traveling for twenty straight hours, Ken is drop-dead exhausted, and he’s locked himself out of his apartment. Wonderful. He wilts down onto the concrete floor of the corridor, sitting next to his suitcase and backpack. There is no plan of action. He sits and listens to the horny cicadas: MEEN MEEN MEEN. He wants to weep, but can’t.
Here he is, living in Tokyo, the son of one immigrant, the grandson of another. When Ken moved to Japan, he worried about Grandpa Dutoit’s reaction. For that matter, what does his mother think about it? And Ken himself—what does he think he accomplishes by living here? He’s not so naïve as to believe he will somehow discover his roots in Japan. But if he isn’t seeking roots, then why exactly is he here?
He glances up at the doorknob. The little wooden lion droops down from the keyhole. He wonders how the sisters from Singapore are making out in San Jose. He hopes they can find good durian there.
Maybe he didn’t come to Japan to find roots. Maybe he came looking for the opposite of roots—rootlessness. Maybe wanderlust is inscribed on Ken’s bones, a deviant code fragment tucked away in his DNA. Maybe he comes from a long line of nomads, people who can’t stay put.
Ken tries the lock again. He cradles the head of the key between his index finger and thumb and turns as gently as he can, like a mother cleaning her baby’s ear with a cotton swab. Nothing doing: it’s really stuck. He’s traveled halfway across the globe, met two angels from Singapore, buried a grandfather. Now, to top it all off, he’s locked himself out of his own apartment. It’s a catastrophe. But someday, he thinks, it might make a good story.
Michael Bourdaghs was born and raised in Minnesota, but now lives in Chicago. His fiction has previously appeared in The Avery Anthology, Colere, and Hawai’i Pacific Review, among other literary journals. He is also a scholar and translator of Japanese literature.
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